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Liberty celebrates Class of 2015 with largest crowd ever

At Liberty University’s 42nd Commencement Ceremony, graduates in the Class of 2015 were challenged to cling to the faith that was strengthened during their college years and reminded to hold fast to Christian values as they embark on a new chapter in their lives.

“Whether you are in this stadium or an online student receiving a degree, as of today, Liberty University is in your past. But this school, and the values that it stands for, will always be part of who you are,” keynote speaker and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said. “If there is any useful role I can perform here, maybe it is just to offer one last word of encouragement in the vocation you have freely taken up. It is the same one, of course, whatever degree you have earned, whatever work you will do, however life unfolds. It is the greatest of all callings — to know, love, and serve the Lord — and it is yours by choice.”

President Jerry Falwell conferred 17,500 degrees to the graduating class, reminding them to never forget the original vision for Liberty, “to train young people to go out into every profession, every walk of life, and to live your life by Christian principles.”

“Your priorities should be to love God and love others while you strive to be the best that you can be in your chosen profession,” he said. “It is our prayer that all of you will be the salt of the earth and the light of the world throughout your careers.”

As more than 34,000 guests filled the seats at Williams Stadium — the largest crowd recorded at a Liberty Commencement — Falwell noted the academic accomplishments of this year’s graduating class, including more than 7,700 master’s degrees, 500 doctoral degrees, 60 law degrees, 4,800 students graduating with honors, and more than 1,000 students with a perfect 4.0 GPA.

Falwell added that he is proud that the Class of 2015 includes more than 5,400 who have served, are serving, or are married to a military service member. Military students were recognized in a special ceremony on Friday night.

Parents were also recognized for their essential role, as were the families that were graduating together: siblings, parents and children, and husbands and wives. Falwell acknowledged a few individual graduates who have overcome considerable obstacles to reach this milestone: Amen Mibaraka, who lost her father and much of her family in the Rwandan genocide; Mark Simpson, who has overcome the physical challenge of living without legs; and Barbara Connor, who kept the secret from her granddaughter Cheryl Dubrow that she had enrolled in Liberty’s online program and was earning the same degree (both graduated together today).

Other notable graduates included former congresswoman and presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann’s daughter Caroline, who earned a bachelor’s degree with a double major in business finance and marketing, as well as Fox News TV and radio host Sean Hannity’s wife, Jill Hannity, who received her Master of Arts in Counseling. Seven posthumous degrees, represented by empty chairs draped in graduation regalia, were also awarded.

President Falwell introduced his family members and, as a special surprise, his son Wesley proposed to his longtime girlfriend, graduate Laura Brumble. President Falwell also recognized his son Trey’s wife, Sarah, a member of the graduating class.

In his address to the graduates, Falwell listed the various national media outlets that have written about Liberty over the last few months, including the Associated Press, USA Today, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Chronicle article, titled “How Liberty University became an unexpected model for the future of higher education” quoted Michael Horn, executive director for education at the Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. “Liberty’s success may be that they are not trying to be like everybody else — higher education is ignoring it at its own risk.” Falwell responded, saying, “We have always been proud to be different.”

Falwell told the Class of 2015 that the praise coming from the “corners of society” is a compliment to the students and alumni of this university.

“It is you that make Liberty University successful. It is you that represent this university so well with your work ethic. It is your obvious love for God and love for others in the workplace that sets this university apart. Many of you may not be able to preach a sermon, but our goal at Liberty has been to train you how to live a sermon every day,” he said.

Before introducing Jeb Bush, Falwell reminded the audience that Jeb is not the first Bush to speak at Commencement. His father, 41st U.S. President George H. W. Bush, spoke to graduates in May 1990 and received the honorary Doctor of Humanities degree.

Falwell introduced Bush as a longtime protector of conservative and Christian values who has committed much of his life to promoting excellence in education at all levels. The University of Texas graduate was elected in 1998 as the 43rd Governor of Florida and was the first two-term Republican to hold that office. During his tenure, he cut nearly $20 billion in taxes, vetoed more than $2.3 billion in earmarks, and created 1.3 million net jobs. As founder and chairman of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, he co-founded the state’s first charter school.

After receiving an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from Liberty, Bush addressed the graduates, telling them that, “Liberty is sending forth across America civilized, confident, true-hearted men and women, which happens to be just what America needs.”

He urged graduates to choose a path and stay on it.

“Life can present more choices than we sometimes know what to do with. Especially if you are young and trying to live out the message of the Gospels, the world will never run short of competing offers. You have heard them all, you are not impressed, and that wisdom alone will carry you a long way,” he said.

“The faith that you brought here, the faith that matured here, doesn’t give every answer to every question. Nor, of course, does it promise anyone a life spared from doubt or difficulty,” Bush explained. “But in the way of life’s advantages, each one of you already has the best there is, an awakened conscience. Whatever the need, the affliction, or the injustice, there is no more powerful or liberating influence on this earth than the Christian conscience in action.”

Bush said that in contemporary society, Christianity is spoken of as a negative force.

“Outside these 7,000 acres of shared conviction, it is a depressing fact that when some people think of Christianity and of Judeo-Christian values, they think of something static, narrow, and outdated,” he said. “We can take this as unfair criticism, as it typically is, or we can take it as further challenge to show in our lives the most dynamic, inclusive, and joyful message that ever came into the world.”

Bush asserted that it is “ungrateful” to dismiss the Christian faith as irrelevant in the modern world.

“The endless work of Christian charity in America is what free people do when they have good news to share.  It is how free people live when they have a living faith,” he said. “There are no blinders on the Christian conscience, try as the world might to make us look away from needs and wrongs, or make us too comfortable to care. Your generation is bringing the Christian voice to where it is always needed.”

He told graduates that “getting on with life” is the theme of the day.

“May all the work you have finished here mark just one milestone in a long, purposeful, and happy journey,” he said. “At each new turn, may you find God’s loving kindness before your eyes, and may you always be its instrument. And from this place, to wherever you are bound, in the words of Isaiah, may you ‘go out with joy and be led forth with peace.’ God bless the Class of 2015.”

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